Wednesday 22 August 2018

My Life in Comics, by Dan Metcalf

I love comics. There, I said it. I’m a geek, and proud. I grew up with comics, but in the British tradition. I first bought a copy of Buster comic at age 5 for a paltry 20p and then bullied my parents into getting it added to the newspaper delivery every week for years. I couldn’t even read at that point, and comic strips like Cliffhanger, X Ray Specs, Faceache and Buster himself replaced my old Enid Blyton books as the bedtime story of choice. As I grew and developed, Buster taught me how to read. I could sort of tell what they were saying from the pictures, and as I learned new letters and sounds (no phonics in those days) I could begin to piece together a story.

I was hooked. Comics had everything: Excitement! Jokes! Slapstick! Exclamation marks at the end of every sentence! There was even a gateway drug comic strip to get older kids hooked on grown-up comics in The Leopard of Lime Street.

From then on, my reading widened and broadened, becoming the top reader in my class at school (I was so far ahead of the class that I was allowed to choose my own books from the tiny school library. Once I came back with a guide to the European Common Market because it contained – yes – comics.)
I began reading everything I could get my hands on. The three-panel strips in my dad’s Daily Mirror, a bumper pile of Roy of the Rovers mags from a school fete (even though I had no interest in football) and well-meaning relatives would buy me Beano summer specials, even though I was a Buster fan (It’d be like buying a Man Utd fan a Man City shirt, and vice versa. I still read them though). The anarchic OINK! served my purile, disgusting sense of humour, and I even got my sister to create a strip for me – The surprisingly good Thing’m’jig, about an alien with deelyboppers who lived with a little boy.

Sadly, it was very clear to me that I couldn’t draw. Not even a straight line. Never have, probably never will. This saddened me, and as I realised that I would never be able to draw my own comic, I let my enthusiasm wane. I soon grew apart from my comics, as school dictated that I read ‘proper’ books.
A fallow period began, punctuated only by the few pages of comics in my beloved Red Dwarf Smegazine. It would last until my tenure in the now-defunct Ottakars, a delightful chain bookshop in which I was entrusted with the Graphic Novels section. I immersed myself in them and was soon hooked again. I’ve never been much for superheroes, but Batman was lovely and violent, and Spiderman zippy and witty, so I read all I could. I longed for something a bit more…crazy.

And then I met Spider Jerusalem.

Spider Jerusalem is the manic futuristic mash up of gonzo journalists HL Mencken and Hunter S Thompson. I first found him lying in his own filth on the bottom shelf of a comic book bay in Ottakars. I picked him up and dusted him off. I had long been looking for something with a bit more bite, something that didn’t try to cater to both the children’s market of comics and the adult. Transmetropolitan by Warren Ellis and Darick Robertson was just the thing; a sick, foul, pungent smelling world of the future with sex puppets, bowel disrupters and a double-headed cat that smoked twenty a day.

I was drawn in by the humour and the twisted sensibilities of the comic, the crude jokes and very graphic pencilling of Robertson, but most of all the voice of the writer was present, and it was a voice I was compelled to read more of. A quick search on the then-creaking internet found that this Ellis chap was…notorious.

By the time I reached the tenth trade paperback, I was amazed at the quality of the writing, the series arc, and the perfect circularity of the series as a whole. And I was hooked. I read all the ‘proper’ adult stuff I could find, and particularly anything I could get by Ellis. Ministry of Space, Crecy, Frankenstein’s Womb, and Global Frequency showed me what could be accomplished in the genre, and by golly I was impressed. Comics seemed so free, so creative and so direct that I made it my goal to write one (a task I still haven’t accomplished).

Series such as Y:The Last Man and Watchmen only compounded the notion that works of greatness could be achieved in this format, and I began to drink in the single-volume novels too; Blankets and Ghost World spring to mind.

The library service was amazing in getting anything I wanted – the fact that I worked for them and didn’t have to pay for reservations was good too. And it was during the long hours spent staring at a screen in a library, pretending to work, that I stumbled on the future, and the murky world of webcomics.

Back in the noughties webcomics was a wild west frontier and I struggled to wrap my head around the concept – amazingly talented writers and artists writing pages weekly, sometimes daily, and putting them up for FREE. I could read all I wanted! I could gorge on ink and funnies! For FREE. Did I mention they were free?

The titles I managed to hook myself on were the strip panels of Nate Wooters, the long form story telling of Templar Arizona, the hilarity of Convicts and my old pal Warren Ellis waded into the world with a weekly offering of Freakangels. (read ‘em all. They’re good). 

The webcomic world never really managed to monotize itself though and Amazon’s comixology app really sucked up the digital readers. The advent of the iPad should have made comics more digitally friendly, but it seems a lot of comic fans like their paper copies still. This doesn’t stop comic book shops in the US closing down frequently (I blame this on economics, which it should be blindingly obvious that I know nothing about).

Which brings us up to date. I continue to scour every library I visit for new titles and it has got to the stage where trade paperbacks (collected volumes) are the only books I buy now. My current jam, and some notable recommendations, below. See ya next time.

1 – Saga by Brian K Vaughan
2 – Paper Girls by Brian K Vaughan
3 – Runaways by Brian K Vaughan (Ok, so just check out all of BKV’s work)
4 - Lighter than my Shadow by Katie Green
5 – DMZ by Brian Wood
6 – Scott Pilgrim by Bryan Lee O’Malley
7 – Seconds by Bryan Lee O’Malley
8 – Y: The Last Man by Brian K Vaughan (Him again, I know, sorry!)
9 – Hilda by Luke Pearson
10 – Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud. 

Dan Metcalf is the author of Dino Wars: Rise of the Raptors. The second book in the Dino Wars series, The Trials of Terror is out next month, 28th September 2018. Checkout for more. 

1 comment:

Anne Booth said...

This is really interesting. I loved Buster and Beano and Judy and Tammy and Twinkle and Bunty and Mandy - they were so important to me growing up. I haven't really transferred my affections to graphic novels - so I must look at the ones you recommend and educate myself. Thank you.